Evolution Of The Wolf


I was recently asked about how wolves evolved, and I wanted to write an article on this.

Wolves evolved from early caniforms about forty million years ago.

The evolution of the wolf is a long subject, forty million years long, but I have tried to condense it down for you.

The Evolution Of The Wolf

The evolution of the wolf has been a long process. Around forty million years ago, the super-family Carnivoramorpha split into two groups: feliforms and caniforms.

Wolves are descendants of these earliest caniforms, which included the ancestors of foxes (Vulpes) and canines. (Leptocyon)

Other canines also emerged, including Eucyon, a jackal-sized animal that existed in North America, and the coyote-like Eucyon davisi. Next came the early Canis, the ancestor of modern wolves, dogs, and coyotes, followed by Canis lepophagus.

Canis lepophagus is important as it is thought to have its lineage lead to two different species: coyotes and wolves.

Canis chihiensis was wolf-sized, and quickly become the most dominant predator in, appearing about three to four million years ago.  

It is not clear where canids originated, with some researchers believing that they spread to Asia and South America from North America. Other scientists believe that they came from Asia, spreading throughout the world. It is also believed by some that canids migrated to Asia from North America before returning home.

Sometime around sixty million years ago, the first ancestors of modern wolves appeared. Approximately twenty million years ago, these ancestors had developed into two separate families.

These two families that branched out became what we now know as canines and felines, or the families of dogs and cats.  

It is believed that the first canids evolved from a common ancestor two to three million years ago. Two of these were the gray wolf and the dire wolf. The dire wolf (Canis dirus) lived alongside the gray wolf (Canis lupus) for approximately three hundred to four hundred thousand years.

The gray wolves and the dire wolves are believed to have migrated from Asia to North America in the Pleistocene period.  

Dire wolfs became extinct around seven thousand thousand years ago due to climate change wiping out their prey over several thousand years.  

In New Mexico, there is an archaeological site where many bones have been found. In Sandia Cave, Las Huertas Canyon, researchers have found evidence of wolf and human remains. The bones of the wolves at the archaeological site have been dated back to about ten thousand years old.

If you want to know the difference between a coyote and a wolf, you can find out here in an article I have written.

Wolf
Two wolves in cold snow forest, the alpha showing teeth to other pack member

North America

Throughout history, gray wolves have been separated into many subspecies by biologists, with as many as thirty-two at one point. Of these, there were twenty-four that had been identified in North America.

Most of these two to three dozen subspecies were associated with the regions and habitats that they lived.  

Have you ever wondered why wolves howl? You can find out the many reasons in this article I have written here.

Subspecies Of Wolves

  • Kenai Peninsula Wolf (Canis lupus alces)
  • High Arctic Wolf (Canis lupus arctos)
  • Mexican Gray Wolf (Canis lupus baileyi)
  • Newfoundland Wolf (Canis lupus beothucus)
  • Victoria Islands Wolf (Canis lupus Bernardi)
  • Yukon Wolf (Canis lupus columbianus)
  • Vancouver Island Wolf (Canis lupus crassodon)
  • Cascade Mountains Wolf (Canis lupus fuscus)
  • Alberta Wolf (Canis lupus griseoalbus)
  • Manitoba Wolf (Canis lupus hudsconicus)
  • Rocky Mountains Wolf (Canis lupus irremotus)
  • Labrador Wolf (Canis lupus labradorius)
  • Arctic Islands Wolf (Canis lupus ligoni)
  • Eastern Timber Wolf (Canis lupus lycaon)
  • Northwest Territories Wolf (Canis lupus Mackenzii)
  • Baffin Island Wolf (Canis lupus manningi)
  • New Mexico Wolf (Canis lupus mogollonensis)
  • Texas Wolf (Canis lupus monstrabilis)
  • Great Plains Wolf (Canis lupus nubilus)
  • Mackenzie Valley Wolf (Canis lupus occidetalis)
  • Greenland Wolf (Canis lupus orion)
  • Yukon Wolf (Canis lupus pambasileus)
  • Arctic Tundra Wolf (Canis lupus tundrarum)
  • Rocky Mountain Wolf (Canis lupus youngi)
Wolf
Picture of a wolf dog at dusk.

Some of these subspecies are now extinct, and in 1992 at the North American Symposium on Wolves, the number of species was suggested to be reduced to just five.

Due to an increase in the knowledge of genetics, and wolf behavior, zoologists realized that most of the above subspecies were not distinct subspecies from one another.

The five subspecies recognized at the North American Symposium on Wolves are as follows:

  • Mexican Gray Wolf (Canis lupus baileyi)
  • Eastern Wolf (Canis lupus lyycaon)
  • Great Plains Wolf (Canis lupus nubilis)
  • Northwestern Wolf (Canis lupus occidentalis)
  • Arctic Wolf (Canis lupus arctos)

I have written a complete guide on gray wolves which you can find here.

Red Wolf

The red wold (Canis rufus) is a wolf that some biologists believe is a subspecies of gray wolf, and others believe it is a truly separate species of wolf.  

In 2016, a study was published by the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) following genetic tests on red wolves.

The study by UCLA found that the red wolf is not an alternative species. The red wolf is a hybrid caused by the crossbreeding of gray wolves and coyotes.

Although this study seems to be conclusive that red wolves are not a distinct species, the view of most biologists is that the red wolf is a separate species, but that the species has been ‘watered-down’ by a large amount of interbreeding over time with coyotes.

There were three subspecies of red wolves, but all are now extinct in the wild. By 1980, all red wolves in the wild had disappeared, even after they were put on the endangered species list in 1973.  

Many thought that this would be the end of the red wolf, but fourteen red wolves had been captured earlier. These captured wolves were picked based on their lack of coyote attributes and behavior.  

These pure red wolves have bred, and red wolves have now been reintroduced into the wild in South Carolina, North Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, and Tennessee.  

There are currently a few hundred red wolves in the wild.

Eurasia

In Eurasia, there are currently fifteen species of wolves.

  • Tundra Wolf (Canis lupus albus)
  • Arabian Wolf (Canis lupus arabs)
  • Steppe Wolf (Canis lupus campestris)
  • Russian Wolf (Canis lupus communus)
  • Mongolian Wolf (Canis lupus chanco)
  • Caspian Sea Wolf (Canis lupus cubanensis)
  • Iberian Wolf (Canis lupus deitanus)
  • Asian Desert Wolf (Canis lupus desertorum)
  • Hokkaido Wolf (Canis lupus hattai)
  • Japanese Wolf (Canis lupus hodophilax)
  • Italian Wolf (Canis lupus Italicus)
  • Eurasian Wolf (Canis lupus lupus)
  • Austro-Hungarian Wolf (Canis lupus minor)
  • Indian wolf (Canis lupus pallipes)
  • Iberian Wolf (Canis lupus signatus)

Evolution Of Wolves To Dogs

Although wolves are still around, evolution has not passed them by, with the descendants of wolves being domestic dogs.

The binomial name for domestic dogs is Canis lupus familiaris. It is believed that wolves became less fearful of humans due to their dependence on them for food, hanging around settlements to feed on garbage. As they became less scared of humans, they were trained and domesticated.  

Alaskan Malamute

Due to the discovery of remains, it is believed that wolves in Europe were domesticated around sixteen thousand years ago, and in Asia fourteen thousand years ago. DNA analysis from 1997 suggests a date of about 130,000 years ago.

All breeds of dogs that are available to us now come from wolves, although interbreeding has them come in many shapes, sizes, and colors. Dogs were bred for different jobs and different climates, but this has led to some problems.

Ever wondered why there are so many dog breeds? You can find out in this article I have written here.

Pug
Pug

Disease and health problems due to interbreeding cause many dogs to have problems throughout life. Breathing difficulties, blindness, heart defects, skin problems, deafness, and hip dysplasia are some of the problems caused by interbreeding.

Shorter muzzles, smaller breeds, and teeth are just some of the differences from gray wolves. While some breeds such as the Alaskan Malamute have maintained the characteristics of the wolf, other breeds such as the pug are very different.

If you want to know if wolves have been in your yard, I have written an article here which will help you.

Bryan Harding

Bryan has spent his whole life around animals. While loving all animals, Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Not only does Bryan share his knowledge and experience with our readers, but he also serves as owner, editor, and publisher of North American Mammals.

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